THE STRINGS (2020)
In the dead of winter, a musician travels to a remote cottage to work on new material, but soon finds herself under attack from a mysterious dark presence.
Call me a scaredy-cat, but nearly an hour into The Strings, late at night, alone, the world outside completely black and silent, I decided that finishing the movie in daylight seemed a very appealing option, and spent the rest of my evening with the jollier and less unsettling ordeals of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) instead. For The Strings is genuinely frightening in a way few horror movies are today. It’s not merely creepy, it quietly and unhurriedly builds a sense of palpable dread.
Much of this achievement is down to just two people. To a large extent The Strings is a one-man show behind the camera (as Ryan Glover directs, produces, co-wrote, edits, and acts as cinematographer), and a one-woman show in front of it (Teagan Johnston is alone for much of the film). But almost every element works well and, importantly for an obviously low-budget production, it has no apparent ambitions that it fails to achieve.
Catherine (Johnston) is a moderately successful singer-songwriter living in Toronto. It’s implied she’s recently split with her band, possibly with a partner too, but in any case she wants to get away from the city, so she borrows her aunt’s house on the coast of Prince Edward Island for a week. It’s there she drinks, tries to write miserable songs, and meets up with photographer Grace (Jenna Schaefer), who takes her for a shoot at an old farmhouse which was once the site of two murders.
Before this there have already been faint hints that not everything is quite right—“I just straight up don’t remember there being a basement,” Catherine says of her aunt’s cottage—but now things certainly get slowly but undeniably weirder. It’s a process that begins with Catherine thinking she notices an odd shape in one of Grace’s photos, and ends with a scene of ghastly suggestiveness, likely inspired by the final shot of The Blair Witch Project (1999). There are other touches of Blair Witch here and there, but thematically The Strings mostly resembles is Mark Pellington’s underrated The Mothman Prophecies (2002).
The strings of the title are those which unseen manipulators of the world might pull, and although for a while one expects The Strings to reveal itself as a straightforward ghost story, the nature of Catherine’s haunting turns out to be more mysterious. Her interest in a video tutorial on space-time physics, as well as a brief conversation she has with Grace about the phenomena plaguing her, both point toward the idea she’s encountering something less categorisable than an ordinary ghost.
The answer remains opaque to the end, but that doesn’t stop The Strings being downright frightening. Some of this is down to our easy identification with Catherine, who embodies a very human mixture of indeterminate unhappiness with an ability to still get on with life and take some fun where she can find it. A great deal, though, is also down to Glover’s photography and direction.
This is only his second feature as director after Hills Green (2013), also co-written with his business partner Krista Dzialoszynski, and they have another horror production in the works. But his background is largely in cinematography—and it shows. The visuals of The Strings are frequently beautiful or striking (like an array of tree stumps on a beach appearing like frozen people), and they add much to the film’s disquieting effect.
For large parts of his movie Glover favours a simple approach, placing the camera head-on to a subject in the centre of an uncluttered frame. Combined with lengthy shot durations, this gives a powerful sense of solitude, of timelessness, and of being not quite connected to the rest of the busy world. And once Catherine’s started seeing things that shouldn’t be there, the extraordinary calmness of some scenes makes you worry all the more about what might pop into view at any moment.
By contrast, when she and Grace are in the murder-scene farmhouse, camera angles are more askew. Later, occasional overhead shots of Catherine’s music setup might represent a hidden thing’s perspective. This isn’t just the gorgeous photography that so many indie productions boast, then, it’s beautiful photography in service of the film’s overall impact.
Occasional cutting out of chronological sequence never feels overly contrived, and iconic horror sounds—creaks and thumps—benefits from being used judiciously rather than continually. The music by Adrian Ellis can be effectively intense but also overdone, and regrettably features several appearances by the wordless choir that this genre keeps so busy. It’s one of the movie’s few weaknesses.
That apart, and it really is a minor detail, it’s difficult to fault The Strings. Some viewers may find Glover’s style of horror disappointingly elliptical, as it doesn’t rely on a carnival of jump scares and full-on visual revelations for its climax. In fact, there are few “horror events” in the entire film, and those that are present work because of the nerve-shredding atmosphere that surrounds them and not because they’re exceptionally horrifying in themselves.
In that respect The Strings has more in common with the great horror short stories of the past, works like M.R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You and W.W Jacobs’s The Monkey’s Paw, than it does with the mainstream of modern Hollywood. But unless you really need lurid VFX to put you in a state of abject fearfulness, The Strings is superior as an exercise in terror to many much more elaborate movies… and if it all becomes a bit too much, well, Lifeboat’s an interesting film too.
CANADA | 2020 | 94 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Ryan Glover.
writers: Ryan Glover & Krista Dzialoszynski.
starring: Teagan Johnston & Jenna Schaefer.